Dr. Price gone but not forgotten one year later

This piece appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of The Griffin. It is posted here to better display a narrative of this length. Wednesday, Oct. 24 marks one year since Canisius lost Dr. Price.

Dr. Price smiles at last year’s Mass of the Holy Spirit.

I turn off my lights and make a dash for it. It’s weird running toward a church.

Those who can no longer run are wise enough to carry umbrellas. I’ve only seen the umbrella-carriers at important college events in jackets and ties. I shouldn’t be seeing them crying with their wives on a school night.

Fr. John Bucki, S.J., greets us at the door. He’s known around campus for his booming voice and outgoing personality, but tonight the man who addresses his congregation without a microphone hands out fliers in silence.

It’s dark in the chapel. They usually keep it dim to give off the full effect of the stained glass windows, but this is darker than I’ve ever seen it.Windows aren’t good for much this late at night.

Incense wafts through the air but for once I can’t smell it. My senses aren’t responding right now, and I’m holding it together better than most. The pews are filled in clusters. Athletes fill two rows to my right and faculty seem to have congregated in front of them. I find a familiar face on the left side and she lets me in without saying a word. Girls in front of us cry together.

My hockey team is practicing somewhere, but that’s not on my mind right now. Nothing is. I can’t focus on anything without wondering again if this can be real.

I look up when I realize someone is speaking at the podium, but the speaker only caught my attention when she cut off abruptly to collect herself. I don’t know how long she’s been talking for. I don’t know if anyone does.

I fade out again. The memories are playing in my head, and most people here have more memories about her than I do. At one point I snap back in a panic, hoping I didn’t miss a time I was supposed to stand up. I’d look foolish, but then again, no one’s judging tonight.

Some of the girls from the front go to the microphone. I don’t think they’ve stopped crying yet. They say they traveled overseas with her last summer, and the rest is mumbled between sobs. I think she thanks us for coming before collapsing into a three-way hug with the girls behind her.

The gathering must be ending now that people are walking down the aisle. My legs don’t feel like moving. A lot of people are taking the news harder than I am, but it’s exhausting watching people cry.

The rain has subsided to more of a mist as we leave. I wave goodbye to a friend just before she steps into a puddle and supposedly ruins her shoes. She’s in a daze too. How could this happen?

. . .

Sometimes I still see her. I can’t believe it’s been a year since that night in the chapel after Dr. Price died. Turn the corner too fast down the last flight of stairs, that blonde flash of hair walking out of sight – that had to be her. It was always her.

A student once said, “Justine is a sweetheart, Dr. Price is a hardass,” noting the difference between her personalities in the roles she played. Every side of her wanted the best for you, just in a different way. The personal side required her to be friend and the professional level needed her to be a superior.  And Justine – rather, Dr. Price – knew where to draw the line.

We’re way past waiting for it to sink in now, but we’re not in any hurry to remember the details. In fact, it’s probably the opposite. We’re doing our best to forget.

It’s not that anyone wants to forget about Justine. Forgetting just means the hurt might stop, and that’s something we’d all sign up for. It’s one thing to lose a great grandmother who battled cancer as long as you could remember. There’s time to prepare yourself for that. When it’s a 42-year-old professor with an insatiable desire to get the most out of her students, it stays with you.

More than anything, I find myself wondering who the last person was to see her alive. What was she doing? What did she say? Knowing Justine, it was probably something polite or intelligent, but it was likely a combination of the two. You couldn’t pull a fast one on her. She knew. And worst of all, she knew that you knew she knew. It wasn’t worth it.

Dr. Price was a lot of things to a lot of people. Instructor and coworker are the obvious roles she played. She wasn’t married and didn’t have children, but some students thought of her as a mother. These are the girls who accompanied Justine on a service immersion trip to Poland two summers ago, the ones who cried at the podium, and the ones who suffered the most when she diedlast October. Others simply thought of her as a friend.

No one expected her to go as soon as she did. Somber posts took over social media sites after the dean of students sent out an email to the entire school just after 6 p.m. that Monday night. The prayer session was held at 9:30, and it just wouldn’t have been right if it wasn’t raining.

. . .

Dr. Steven Halady considered Justine one of his closest friends. “Those friends who, after the party is over, you stay and do a little cleanup and it’s basically just you sitting there finishing the wine? That was me and Justine,” he says.

Not a full-time professor at the school, he was able to make an acquaintance slowly before discovering he and Justine went to the same gym. Though neither would appear much of an athlete, it became a weekly routine. Following the workout, they would make the short walk from the Buffalo Athletic Club on Delaware Avenue to Spot Coffee for Sunday morning breakfast. That’s where the friendship kindled.

“We’d just talk – talk about work, talk about life, talk about professional nerdy stuff,” Halady says.

He taught a class on Fridays that semester across the hall from Dr. Price’s office. He popped in one week to cancel Sunday’s gym session because he had too much work to do. She said it was fine and neither thought twice about it. They cancelled on each other from time to time – working professionals lead busy lives.

He made up his workout alone the following Monday. His phone buzzed on the ride home with a text message from a colleague, offering vague sympathy about some news in an email. The light turned green and his thoughts went back to the road.It was probably bad news about his contract negotiation. Would he ever get to become a full professor? Whatever. He had friends in from out of town and they would put his mind at ease.

When he opened the email, he didn’t know what to do first. He frantically dialed numbers and called around for confirmation, knowing it had to be true but wishing it wasn’t. His mind raced and thought about nothing at the same time. He thought he was going crazy. What do you do when you find out your best friend is dead?

Steven Halady took a shower. He didn’t know what else to do, and a shower was something. It’s a safe environment, at least. He got dressed and met with his friends briefly before walking through the rain to the chapel to blend in among teary-eyed faces.

Across campus, students get together to collect themselves. The group of girls who went to the orphanage in Poland takes the news exceptionally hard. Justine was their second mom, and their only mom on that side of the world.

They meet at the campus Tim Hortons, in the back by the library, and try to drown their sorrows in hot chocolate and peanut Timbits. A song comes on the radio, and it sounds familiar. No one remembers the words but they can’t forget Justine attempting to sing karaoke to it with the orphans. They take it as a sign that everything is going to be OK.

Olivia Hanlon sat across from Justine at breakfast every morning. When she looked up, she always saw a loving face smiling back at her.

Hanlon’s mother, Beth, sent clothes for the orphans one day near the end of the trip. Olivia dressed the kids right away and brought them to Justine’s cabin, excited for her just to see the kids so happy.

“Justine, Justine, come downstairs!” she called out.“Justine was crying, she was just so happy. She was always just happy for everyone.”

Justine accompanied a few of the girls on a trip to a nearby city one day in Poland. When the driver of the van stopped at gas station on a hill, he forgot to set the parking brake, and panic set in as the vehicle started to roll away. Hanlon dove over the driver’s seat and pressed the brake as hard as she could – but Justine wasn’t in the passenger seat anymore.

“She had gotten out of the car and tried to stop it with her body,” Hanlon says.“We don’t know how that would have worked … she just jumped in front of the car and tried to stop it for us.”

Hanlon was inspired enough by Justine that summer that she went back to Poland to lead this summer’s trip. Other members of the group show their connection in different ways.

Two weeks after the chapel, Monica Walter already talked to an artist and has a design ready for a tattoo. She’s mourning the loss and wants to do something permanent to reassure herself Justine’s memory will stay alive forever. The tattoo artist puts in a clean needle and goes to work on Walter’s left shoulder blade, so it will appear as if Justine is always watching over her. He draws a pair of wings in red and white, the Polish colors, and inscribes “kochma cie ciocia Justynka” in between – “I love you aunt Justine.”

. . .

Dr. Bruce Dierenfield, director of the college honors program, visits Dr. Price’s classes the day after the chapel with other professors and counselors to discuss the course of action for the rest of the semester, and to offer support to anyone who needs it. Students pass around rumors that they’re all getting automatic A’s in the class, though they’ll find that isn’t the case. Other professors step in to finish out the semester, though not with the same vigor and passion for art that Dr. Price brought every day.

Dierenfield believes her loss to be harmful to his honors program, as she was one of its greatest supporters. He worries for the future of the art history department as well.

Officially, Dr. Price was the director of the art history program, with a master’s and doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. She was fluent in French and had an understanding of German and Latin. You always worked hard for Dr. Price and you put in the time because she had the ability to make you care about the topic – and that’s coming from a hockey player talking about an art class.

Visiting New York City last spring, her lessons in mind, I persuade my family to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, despite criticism from my brothers. Dr. Price always urged students to take the chance to see art when the opportunity presented itself. I saved the only collared shirt I brought for the last day of the trip, so that I might look respectable if the museum visit came through. Dr. Price would have made me.

We tour the Met, but most of the time we don’t know what we’re looking at. All of the art is well-done, but there’s nothing special about it to me, nothing “sublime” – a word Dr. Price taught me. My brothers kept making fun of me. Every new room we go in seems, to the untrained eye, exactly like the one before it and draws a “Way to go! Glad we came to see some art!” from the peanut gallery I affectionately know as my Matt, Josh and Joe. Other rooms are worse; my three brothers openly wonder if what we are seeing can even count as art.

Dr. Price got me to the point where I can at least appreciate artwork, even if I don’t totally understand it. But in the Met – the Met! – I want something more. The way Justine talked about the sublime made you positive it exists.

An announcement says the museum is closing in 15 minutes. I’m not done looking yet. I must find something sublime because I know it’s there. I have faith in Dr. Price. I surge ahead to try to make it to the last wing. My family is spent from a weekend in the big city, and they go wait in the lobby.

My younger brother tags along and we hang a right into the European paintings collection. Finally what we’re looking for. Among all the famous names, I want to see Monet most of all. We scan the names of the paintings at a brisk pace, just to be able to say we’ve seen classics. Finally, I stop scanning and stand in front of a painting. I don’t know how long I’m stopped for; long enough to lose my brother, who’s suddenly on a mad search for van Gogh. I take it all in. I enjoy this painting. I’ll even consider admitting that it makes me happy. I finally glance at the name, only to learn that Monet has found me. I can’t put my finger on what’s so intriguing about the “Garden at Sainte-Adresse,” but that’s probably what I like about it most. Maybe it’s the little ships out at sea, or perhaps something more technical.Whatever the case, I just like this painting, and this experience. Justine was right.

. . . 

I still go back to thinking about what Justine’s final hours were like. No one thought twice about the last time they saw her. No one wrote anything down or took a picture. You don’t expect people to die at 42.

Dr. Price never made it to campus that day, despite what’s said. Questions had to be creeping up when Fine Arts Director Jane Cary had to do the introductions at an art event that afternoon when Justine was no where to be found. Should would have never skipped an art event like that.

Her 3 o’clock class in Lyons 303 was canceled, but  her “Topics in Modernism” students weren’t told why. They were expecting her to come in with her usual smile and ask them how their weekends went, one-by-one, because it was Monday and Justine couldn’t start the first class of the week without checking in with everyone. That’s something that always amazed people about her: the way she could relate to you and the extent she would go to so you felt important. When she talked to you, she looked you square in the eye and was so genuinely interested that those meeting her for the first time didn’t always know if she was sincere.

Justine planned to leave her red brick apartment that morning, heels clacking down each step, and make her way past the lion statue outside the gate of her building, into her silver SUV and over to campus to put a few more smiles on student faces. Maybe the last person to see Justine would have given her a thank-you nod as she waved him ahead at one of the four-way stops between Lyons Hall and her apartment on Delaware and North. But she didn’t get that far. Somewhere down the narrow stairs between her third-story apartment and her car she must have known something was going terribly wrong.

Her breathing got short and quick as the pulmonary artery, the one bringing blood to the lungs, began to close. She would grab her chest as the pain worsened before her pulmonary embolism collapsed her to the stairs.

Someone must have screamed. The screamer called 911, the paramedics came, an email would be sent and the community would trudge through the rain and into the chapel.

Back in his office, Dr. Dierenfield sits alone and stares aimlessly at the floor.

“They don’t stamp out people like that every day,” he says of Justine, giving high praise to one of her new neighbors.

The lessons Dr. Price taught on a daily basis weren’t as important as the ones she left us with. I don’t remember who painted “The Death of Socrates” and I can’t tell you if Michelangelo came before Leonardo. What I remember is writing Justine a note at the end of Dr. Price’s final exam the semester I had her. I told her she had taught me to care about things I wouldn’t have given a passing glance to 15 weeks earlier. I never found out if she got it and it’ll be a while before I can ask her again, but in my head I like to think she pulls it out from time to time, and smiles.